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Selling British stereotypes

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 30, 2007

Selling British stereotypes

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 30, 2007


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Advertising and marketing use image to help sell ideas and products. However in order to be effective you have to know what kinds of attitudes consumers have about different images. These days if you listen closely, you’ll hear a lot of British accents in a number of commercials. Those ads play off American attitudes triggered by the accents. Ashley Milne-Tyte has more.

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: There’s a Time Warner Cable ad out right now lambasting rival Verizon, specifically the extras on your bill known as surcharges, personified in the ad by a British nobleman.

[ COMMERCIAL:“Sur Charge!”

“Here I am”

“Ah your money, you were wondering where it all went.” ]

“Sur Charge” comes from a distinguished line of posh Brits in U.S. commercials.

Remember this ad: Two stately gentlemen in Rolls Royces, one spreading a certain mustard?

[ COMMERCIAL:“Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”

“You mean the mustard?”

“Yeees, would you have any”? ]

So what is it with these suited, bowl hat-wearing, cane-carrying British stereotypes?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Commercials especially, they have got to use stereotypes. They need to tell a story in 30 seconds and every single character they use has got to read immediately.

That’s Robert Thompson who teaches pop culture at Syracuse University. He says Sur Charge — read: nasty, over-privileged Brit — is meant to drive you indignantly into the arms of a lower-priced company.

The Grey Poupon ad, on the other hand, is selling class with a twist. Jonah Bloom is the British editor of Advertising Age magazine.

JONAH BLOOM: It’s a nice thing to tap into as well, to poke fun at the Brits, and they’re very safe. None of us are going to sit there saying, ‘oh no but y’know white 60-year-old British males are terribly put upon.’ We sit there and we’re happy to laugh at him too.

Well, some of us anyway.

But Bloom reminds me that there’s another British accent now echoing through ad land.

[ COMMERCIAL: “The thing is, everyone wants to save money on their car insurance.” ]

He says the Cockney Geico Gecko has helped vault Geico up the car insurance ranks and become an ad icon in the process. Unlike his starchy counterparts, this character is approachable and friendly, a bit like the cheeky Cockney chimneysweep played by Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins.”

But if these stereotypes sell, who’s a Brit to complain? Britannia clearly rules the airwaves.

In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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